Joshua Wr.


While the following entry is not based directly from out class material, I was able to apply things we learned about Whitman earlier in the semester to make sense of Michael Warner’s lecture on Sex and Secularism in Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps. The leacture focused on the role of and relationship between sex, nationalism, and religion in mid-nineteenth century America, particularly in the fields of poetry and literature. Warner contended that a dominant script existed which placed sex squarely in the domestic and religious domain, away from the growing nationalist movement associated with the American Civil War. Warner used poet Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 publication of Battle of the Republic became a secular anthem of the Civil War, as an example of this dominant ideology. However, Howe, who claimed that nationalism and religion were inherently connected, felt that religion had been abandoned in the public sphere, as evident by its lack of inclusion in the Constitution of the United States. Thus, sexuality became a social issue. For example, the dominant ideology of the time concerning woman’s sexuality was deeply connected to the Cult of True Womanhood, which defined the role of womanhood through literature, magazines, and social pamphlets.
This was opyposed to Whitman’s views on sexuality, which he depicted through his poetry in Drum Taps and later Leaves of Grass. Whitman, who was himself a homosexual, took on a much more unique view of sexuality and religion. Though attacked by his opposition as an agnostic and sexual deviant, Whitman’s own religious beliefs were progressive and individual. Shunning the idea of spoon fed religion, Whitman was an advocate of a personal type of religion, where one had a deeply felt connection to God but did not need an organized institution to lead this relationship. This is connected to nationalism indirectly; in his essay Democratic Vistas, Whitman claimed that two main characteristics were necessary for a successful democracy – “1st, a large variety of character, and 2nd, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions” (Democratic Vistas). His idea of a personal relationship to God, diametrically opposed to the limits of organized religion, embodied this idea of free development. Whitman felt that sexuality, like religion or poetry, should not be limited to socially constrained norms, such as the ideology behind the Cult of True Womanhood, and Drum Taps reflected this.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe relates to us what Ken Kesey lays out to be one of the guiding principles of the Merry Pranksters cross-country bus trip. The principle is utilitarian in nature: “Here’s what I hope will happen on this trip, he says. What I hope will continue to happen, because it’s already starting to happen. All of us are beginning to do our thing, and we’re going to keep doing it, right out in front, and none of us are going to deny what other people are doing” (Wolfe 73). In essence, Kesey hopes for everyone on the trip to be able to express themselves freely, and “there’s not going to be anything to apologize about” (73). Kesey may be expressing this hope as a warning to the Merry Pranksters not to overreact, based on the knowledge that his group of friends is unlikely to limit their antics to strangers met upon the road, but there is could be a deeper philosophy of life expressed here. Kesey’s advocacy for freedom of expression and action on the trip are very similar to great political philosopher John Stuart Mill.
In his essay On Liberty, Mill presents the famous utilitarian defense of classical liberalism and human rights. Mill’s defense extends to both liberty of opinion or thought as well as liberty of action and expression. In his defense, Mill says that the maximum amount of freedom of the individual is desirable, as long as individual actions do not directly violate other’s rights: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (Mill). He says that individual thought and action is essential to the growth and progress of society. Conformity in thought or action leads to stagnation, regardless of the matter of truth. Mill also admits the fallibility of man, saying the individual thought is absolutely essential for challenging and overturning untrue yet widely accepted ideological doctrines. Progress is thus based on freedom of thought and action, and this is, paradoxically, Kesey’s justification for acid use.

The juxtaposition of nature and society is a reoccurring theme within the poetry and literature of the Beat Generation. The Beats, in particular Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, and Gary Snyder, were firm advocates of the idea that nature provided man his best opportunity to escape the monotonous and spiritual emptiness of conformist American society in the 1950’s and 60’s. Through a rejection of mainstream authority and a search for knowledge, their advocacy became linked with the rebirth of the environmental movement in American society as well as with the rise of the “rucksack wanderers” across the country in the 1960’s and 70’s. However, Kerouac, Cassidy, and Snyder, in the tradition of John Muir, Thoreau, and Emerson, were more concerned with the spiritual aspect that nature could provide an individual, not with starting a social reform movement (although Muir did that in starting the Sierra Club). In the words of John Muir, “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves” (Our National Parks 56). Kerouac describes a similar situation in The Dharma Bums when Ray has an epiphany running down the Matterhorn: “and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off a mountain you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain” (D.B. 85). However, Ray, raised in a square Catholic family, cannot completely abandon his past and his connection to society. Gary Snyder, through his poems Mid-August At Sourdough Mountain Lookout, also illustrates the notion of nature as escape contrasted to the society, or “the City”, as a breeding ground for conventionalism and conformity. In M-A.A.S.M.L, Snyder states that “I (he) cannot remember things I once read, a few friends, but they are in cities” (P.B.R. 289). So while nature seemed to provide the Beats with the best chance to escape the constraints of society, forgetting altogether their past connections to society was impossible. Kerouac, in his resistance to complete lunatic Zen Buddhism, Snyder in his memories of “friends” in the “city”, and even Cassidy, in his Chinese translation process, demonstrate that while running away from society is possible, completely escaping is not achievable.

Next Page »